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Jack Weinstein, legal maverick on federal bench, dead at 99

U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein in 2021

U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein in 2021 in his chambers at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. The Great Neck resident died Tuesday at age 99. Credit: Craig Ruttle

When it came time in 2006 to assign judges chambers for the new Eastern District federal courthouse building on Cadman Plaza Park in downtown Brooklyn, as senior judge, Jack B. Weinstein got first crack.

He took a corner office on the 14th floor with a view of the Statue of Liberty.

Weinstein’s office view was an apt symbol for the trajectory of his legal career. For good measure, he kept a photograph of Lady Liberty in his office as well.

Known as an iconoclastic jurist with a liberal maverick's streak since being appointed to the bench in the Eastern District of New York in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Weinstein carved out a unique career spanning five decades in which he championed the rights and dignity of plaintiffs and defendants alike. A legal scholar whose treatises are law office standards, Weinstein was never afraid to speak his mind and often broke new legal ground in his rulings, even if it risked reversal from higher courts.

Weinstein died Tuesday at age 99 at his home in Great Neck. He had become inactive in early 2020 with his caseload divvied up among the other judges, but he still maintained his office, said a colleague, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis.

"We have lost the soul of our court," said another colleague on the federal bench, Judge Carol Amon. "In addition to his brilliance, he was so warm and generous."

Known for his prodigious work output and legal acumen, the Kansas-born, Brooklyn-bred Weinstein credited his career in the U.S. Navy during World War II, when he served as a lieutenant commander on the submarine USS Jallao, for helping to influence his judicial career.

In a 2012 interview with Newsday for a story on the World War II experiences of himself and four other Eastern District judicial colleagues, Weinstein said running a submarine in hostile waters got him ready for the rigors of managing a courtroom.

"I learned to make decisions and decide things firmly, so the minute I walked into my courtroom when I was appointed [in 1967], I was in command, full command of that courtroom," Weinstein said in the interview.

As an officer, Weinstein said he learned to deal with all types of people, to listen to them and treat them with respect.

"I had a sense as an officer for responsibility for my men, which carries over; a responsibility to the people I sentence, to their lives," Weinstein reflected.

More than 6 feet tall and lean, Weinstein was an imposing, larger-than-life figure walking the halls of the Brooklyn courthouse, often surrounded by law clerks and interns. He would be holding court — having informal tutorials with the younger lawyers in tow, remembered Garaufis.

Weinstein had a "crisp and spare" approach to work that focused him on the matters at hand, noted Garaufis. Weinstein could say in two pages what other judges needed 20 pages to say, said another colleague.

Despite his workload, Weinstein would take it upon himself to pick up cakes to celebrate law clerks' departures to new jobs. Weinstein also sent out three-line poems, Haiku style, on all sort of subjects and notes to colleagues congratulating them on a good decision or commiserating with them when they were reversed on appeal, said Garaufis.

Weinstein presided over scores of major cases and pioneered mass tort litigation practices over the use of asbestos and the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He also took public stands decrying the arbitrariness of federal sentencing guidelines, pushed to have women take greater roles in the judiciary and oversaw a number of mediation efforts in civil cases.

One of Weinstein’s last major criminal trials was that involving "Mafia Cops," NYPD Dets. Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, who were convicted of taking payoffs to execute people for the mob. Weinstein caused a stir when he overturned the convictions on statute-of-limitation grounds, a ruling reversed by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Weinstein ultimately sentenced both men to life in prison, where they died.

Weinstein first wife, the former Evelyn Horowitz, predeceased him in 2012. The couple had three sons, Seth, Michael and Howard. Weinstein married Susan Berk in 2014. Aside from his wife and sons, Weinstein is survived by two stepchildren and various grandchildren and stepgrandchildren.

Funeral services at Temple Emanuel, where Weinstein attended services, on Friday are private. Rabbi Robert Widom said a memorial service will take place July 16 at noon at the temple.

Widom said that for Weinstein, "the rule of law to him was something that should always be done with compassion."

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